Cover Story

Speaking frankly

"Speaking frankly" Continued...

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

If Franklin Graham is unafraid to say the hard things, maybe it's because he's seen the hard things firsthand. He was barely a teenager the first time he visited a Muslim country, and a few years later he dropped out of college for one semester to help build a tuberculosis clinic for Bedouin tribesmen in Jordan. Since then, he's been around the world with Samaritan's Purse, the humanitarian organization he headed up even before he took up his father's evangelistic cause. He estimates he's made 70 visits to the Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. And everywhere he goes, the lessons are the same.

"My opinions and my views are shaped by years of working and seeing Islam up close," he says. "There is no religious freedom. I have seen the persecution. It is taught by them, it is in their Koran. They cannot deny it."

Statements like that earn scathing condemnation from big-tent religionists, who accuse Mr. Graham of being a "bigot" and "hater." But such labels stick awkwardly to a man who spends most of his time delivering humanitarian aid rather than sermons. Through Samaritan's Purse Mr. Graham raises roughly $150 million a year to bring physical relief to devastated people--many of them in the Muslim world. He's built hospitals in Sudan, schools in Afghanistan, and children's playgrounds in the Balkans. Everywhere he travels, he brings both good news and goodies.

In Mendoza's squalid Three Stars barrio, for instance, 75 children gathered in a flimsy church on the final afternoon of Mr. Graham's three-day "Festival of Hope." Normally these children would dig through the garbage dump across the street for castoff clothes or broken toys, but on this day they will have a taste of an American-style Christmas. In neat rows, two-by-two, they sit squirming on the church's concrete floor, holding brightly wrapped shoeboxes in their laps. When every child has a box, they count in unison, "uno, dos, tres," and tear into their treasures.

Every item pulled from a box elicits a squeal of delight--then, often, a puzzled inspection. A miniature Etch-A-Sketch and a wind-up toy car are forms of entertainment these children have never experienced. One little boy, perhaps 3 years old, focuses exclusively on the one item from his box that he knows how to use: a blue rubber ball. He tosses it several times until he misses a catch and the ball goes rolling across the hard floor. He chases it in a panic until it comes to a stop against another child's wheelchair. After such a close call, he refuses to toss the ball again, grasping it tightly to his chest while other children swirl around him with prized gifts of their own.

This scene is repeated, with variations in language and skin pigment, each time Mr. Franklin's team rolls into a new city. Operation Christmas Child, as the effort is known, operates independently of the revival festivals, as well. This year, some 6 million children in 100-plus countries around the world will receive Christmas shoeboxes packed by their American counterparts.

Recently, Mr. Graham was invited to distribute his Christmas gifts in war-torn Sudan, where Muslims in the north are trying to wipe out Christianity in the south. A hospital built by Samaritan's Purse has been repeatedly bombed by northern forces, so Mr. Graham was surprised to get a call from the Sudanese ambassador, asking him on behalf of the country's Muslim president to bring thousands of gift boxes and to take part in the peace process.

The evangelist replied that he would love to go, but he first wanted the ambassador to relay a message to the president: "Would you please ask him to stop bombing my hospital?" Mr. Graham asked testily. He went on to lecture the ambassador about targeting innocent civilians and disrupting UN food distribution efforts, then concluded: "And please give my warmest and special greetings to the president."

It was the sort of confrontation that could easily get him dis-invited from the Sudan summit, but high-level elbow-rubbing doesn't much appeal to Mr. Graham, anyway. "I have never sought to win favor or friendship with people in high places," he says. "I've never once thought, 'I'm going to withhold the truth because if I speak the truth then maybe I won't get invited to the next cocktail party.' I don't drink, so I don't care. Some people live for that, but it doesn't matter to me. If God opens up doors in life, you just walk through them and try to be faithful to Him."

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